Just when it had all gone spookily quiet, Gordon Strachan has finally been unveiled as the new Scotland coach. In an unusual turn of events, it would seem the SFA has actually listened to what the majority of fans want and installed the people’s choice. Will the former Celtic manager successfully answer the SOS that fans sent him via a banner at a recent friendly, or will it be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for?'
It is, of course, a simplification to say everybody wanted Strachan. Some critics point to the obvious black spots on his CV, not least his last managerial outing at Middlesbrough which didn’t exactly go according to plan. Any former Old Firm manager taking over the national job is also going to face a degree of opposition from the other half of football’s greatest divide. Walter Smith and Alex McLeish have dealt with that in recent years, and were largely supported by Glasgow’s green half once they were in post. It’ll be interesting to see if the light blue legions accept the former Celtic boss. He won’t even necessarily be universally championed by Celtic fans either. Though history shows him to be a remarkably successful Celtic manager, there was an element of the Hoops support that just didn’t take to him, though this is probably more to do with his lack of a ‘Celtic background’ than his ability or achievements.
There will, then, be various pockets of supporters who won’t necessarily welcome him with open arms, but this would have been the case for any realistic candidate. Scottish managers with unblemished resumes wouldn’t touch the national job with a ten-foot pole. Now more than ever it has become a poisoned chalice and even the most deluded of fans knew that to hope for a Ferguson or even a Moyes would be the stuff of sheer fancy. Of the remaining field, Strachan was obviously the best candidate and his name was by far the most mentioned when Levein’s tenure came to its slow and painful end.
So the people have got their man. Mind you, last time the SFA made the popular choice they appointed George Burley. That experiment proved something of a disaster, but then he was undermined from day one by his players, the media, and by the SFA itself and though his tactics were questionable, he was at least trying to take Scotland somewhere different. So where will Strachan take us?
Well, you can put your mortgage on the formation at least. He was famously tactically rigid at Celtic, playing 4-4-2 come hell or high water, regardless of opposition or personnel. He’s quoted as believing that getting the ball wide and putting crosses into the box is the best way to score goals. It’s not exactly revolutionary but this might be a breath of fresh air to Scotland fans perplexed by Levein’s refusal to play more than one striker – if even that. Strachan’s system probably suits the current squad pretty well. They’re well equipped in wide midfield areas with the likes of James Forrest, James Morrison, Shaun Maloney, Kris Commons and Robert Snodgrass all capable of getting wide and putting decent balls in. Stephen Fletcher could thrive on this kind of service especially with a second striker, perhaps Jordan Rhodes, picking up the scraps. If they manage to get even a few balls into the box, they’re doing better than Levein’s teams, which often struggled to get out of their own half.
Strachan’s also a motivator. Despite his curmudgeonly public persona, he’s a passionate character and has shown at Coventry, Southampton and Celtic that he can get players to play above themselves. Vitally, he’s over-achieved with limited resources at all these clubs, which will stand him in good stead on his latest adventure.
In terms of the current squad, defence is the biggest problem. Scotland lack a quality centre half and this has caused no end of problems in recent years. However, the decidedly average central defensive pairing of Stephen McManus and Scotland’s current first pick Gary Caldwell didn’t stop Strachan taking Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions’ League twice in a row. It’s to be hoped he can find a way to protect this Achilles heel again. His ability to get the best out of mediocre players is his key attribute for this role, but managing expectation may be his first big job.
Though Strachan’s appointment should ignite a spark of relative optimism, Scotland fans have to be realistic. The national game has deep-rooted problems in funding and infrastructure and there are simply not enough good Scottish players being developed. The amount of competition has increased since the break-up of the eastern Bloc. Strachan can’t solve these problems in the short term, if at all, but he can help the side make progress and he has the right demeanour to communicate this to fans. Scotland aren’t going to qualify for Brazil or, in all likelihood, for the tournament after, but we can be better than Levein made us. We should not be sitting at the bottom of a qualification group. We should not be drawing with Macedonia at home. We should not feel we can’t afford to play any strikers against the Czech Republic. And we should not be getting outclassed by Wales, who come calling again in March. Strachan should be the man to make sure we don’t.
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